Gyurcsány’s 48 points: the government’s agenda

I talked about László Sólyom’s speech on the opening day of the fall session of parliament (September 10, 2007), but I didn’t discuss the prime minister’s speech (the one that President Sólyom didn’t want to hear). Gyurcsány gave a detailed plan of action for the government and parliament. He mentioned four important areas of economic and public life that would be emphasized: (1) economic growth and job creation, (2) renewal of the Hungarian educational system, (3) stabilization of health-care reforms, and (4) the establishment of "new order." This last point needs some explanation. Here Gyurcsány doesn’t talk about "law and order" in the conventional sense but about a greater demand for lawful behavior, a commodity in short supply in Hungary.

Within these four large categories he outlined forty-eight subcategories. Why exactly forty-eight? Because, in the Hungarian language, the expression "not to give up the forty-eight" means "to stick to one’s guns." The origin of the expression goes back to the nineteenth century when, prior to the Compromise of 1867 with Vienna, some of the politicians demanded the complete restoration of the Hungarian demands as formulated and accepted in April 1848. As it is quite obvious from the word "compromise," the Hungarians had to give up certain things after all. In any case, Gyurcsány, by making sure that there were forty-eight items in his plan, wanted to emphasize that he stands pat, he doesn’t retreat, and he continues the reforms.

In the economic sphere, he promised more help for small- and medium-sized Hungarian enterprises. With 2,000 billion forints coming from the European Union for business development, the government calculates that it might be able to assist as many as 100,000 companies. He mentioned the widening of foreign markets for Hungarian products and the need to ensure that in the large chains more and more Hungarian products are available. The government is planning to shrink the cumbersome bureaucracy for businesses. It will also promote critical research and development projects with the help of European Union funds.  It will simplify the complicated tax code. It will invest about 500 billion forints just in 2007-2008 for the improvement of the infrastructure. In the same period the government will spend 85 billion forints to create more jobs. Another 30 billion will be spent on adult education and vocational training. There are plans for the development of tourism, a vitally important element in the country’s economy.

As for the renewal of the Hungarian educational system, let me first give you some background. Hungarian schools were modelled in the nineteenth century on the German (to be precise Prussian)  schools. In their days, the high schools, few in number, served their purpose, but eventually they began to be inadequate, especially after the number of students attending them grew fairly rapidly after 1945. Another problem was that even in the 1970s and 1980s relatively few people finished college. In comparison to the West, very few. In the new millennium the number of college students has multiplied, but unfortunately neither the infrastructure nor the teaching staff has grown proportionately. Hence, standards have suffered. Now the government has to do something to correct the problem.

Gyurcsány began his discussion of educational reform with nursery schools because the problems start there. Today there are fewer nursery schools than in the late 1980s. He promised that by 2010 all children of nursery school age will be able to attend nursery school. In elementary schools (the first eight grades) the emphasis will be on the 3 R’s: reading, writing, and arithmetic. (As it turns out, there are real problems with functional illiteracy.) Although he didn’t mention the Gypsy problem in general, he referenced the need to change the current policy where Gypsy kids are put into special education classes even if they are not retarded. The government is widening the numbers of those who would get financial help to begin their studies on the high school level. At the moment 20,000, mostly talented Roma kids, get a stipend, but within days 7,000 more will be eligible. Many schools will be renovated and modernized.

As for health care, he talked about "stabilization and development." There is no question that the sudden, extensive changes created a certain level of chaos, only exaccerbated by the physicians’ lack of cooperation. One hopes that eventually the new system will work better. The immediate plans include the reform of the family physician network and a different financing for these doctors. At the moment an incredible system is in place (devised during the Antall government). The family doctors can have a certain number of patients who decide to choose them as their primary physicians. They get paid a certain amount per capita. One patient never sees the doctor, another sees him every week, but the primary physician gets the same amount of money for both. Therefore it is not really to the advantage of these doctors to perform certain procedures, even if they would be quite capable of doing so. Instead, they send the patients immediately to the specialists in one of the many (far too many) hospitals. They act as bureaucratic clearing houses since you need the family physicians’ referral to go and see a specialist. As far as I know, this per capita financing sytem will be changed. Doctors will be paid according to the procedures they perform.  The government also plans to set up a system by which the medical institutions could have an independent economic existence, instead of waiting for monies from the ministry. They want to pay special attention to outpatient servies that are underdeveloped in Hungary, especially in rural areas. The government would also like to create four to eight high-level oncological centers and, given the dismal cancer statistics in Hungary, they are badly needed. Until fairly recently, there was no such specialty as "oncology." Finally, he promised that by the end of October the government will come up with a solution to create a system of health insurance. At the moment the two governing parties, MSZP and SZDSZ, can’t agree on the way insurance companies should operate in the new system. At the moment we don’t know who will win.

The program of "the new order"  was the final area where Gyurscány promised changes. Financing of parties and campaigns is a mess. (It is a mess in the United States too and for the same reasons.) The amount of money the parties, depending on size, receive from the budget is ridiculously low. Each party claims that it didn’t spend more than the allotted amount, but everybody knows that it’s a big fat lie. Gyurcsány promises to change the system by 2010. He also wants to have new rules concerning the budget that would prohibit overspending. And then there are the parliamentary "allowances": currently parliamentary members don’t have to show proof of their job-related expenses. The government wants to change this too. Good luck! The MPs are already grumbling, regardless of which side of the aisle one is talking about. Gyurcsány also wants to do something about the black market, which, according to calculations, amounts to about 17-18 percent of the GDP and translates into a loss of 3,700 billion forints in revenues. Zero tolerance in traffic safety? Well, one could be surprised about this: right after the black market comes traffic safety?  But it’s yet another instance, however trivial, of the need for extensive legal reform. In this case here’s the rub: you have conclusive electronic proof that a car with license plate "XYZ" was speeding, but the owner of the car says "I wasn’t a driver," and nothing can be done. Gyurcsány promised that soon enough the owner of the car will be responsible for traffic violations. Period. He also promised more serious measures against those who do damage to the environment and greater consumer protection. Finally, he mentioned the hot potato of Hungarian politics at the moment: the question of hate speech. This will be a hard nut to crack because the Fidesz and perhaps the SZDSZ might not vote for it.

A really difficult agenda. Yet if only half of these programs are fulfilled, it would be a bonanza for the government and a sure path to electoral victory.